Vrendenburg Scholarship offers international research experience to engineering undergrads

SykesTeamDue to a rigid Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering curriculum, I never had the opportunity to study abroad during the normal academic year. I always felt left out, because many of my friends and peers had left school to spend their semesters in fabulous places like Amsterdam and London. Even worse, I studied French for many years in middle and high school and always longed to spend a semester in France.



One day, however, I happened to stumble across the Vredenburg Scholarship, the solution to all my woes.



Each summer, the Vredenburg Scholarship funds 13 undergraduates to apply their engineering skills and training in international research, internships and service projects. I was fortunate enough to use my Vredenburg Scholarship to fulfill my dreams and spend this past summer researching in Paris.

I conducted researched at the historic Institut Curie, which is located in the beautiful fifth arrondissement of Paris. I was paired with a postdoctoral researcher, Dr. Kévin Carvalho, in the Sykes Lab. My project focused on the physics of myosin 1c, a molecular motor that plays important roles in endocytosis, membrane trafficking and transcription of DNA in the nucleus. Rather than working with complex systems like cells, I reconstituted actin gels in a controlled system on the exterior of liposomes. Then, in order to characterize myosin 1c, I would add the molecular motor and quantify the effects on the gel.



Having been a part-time undergraduate researcher in the Denis Wirtz Lab at Hopkins over the past few years, it was so nice to have a full-time research position. With no classes taking up my time, I was finally able to immerse myself in research. I participated in a weekly journal club, attend seminars and listened to PhD Defenses (sometimes in French!).

When not researching in the lab, I spent my free time falling in love with Paris. The city is so alive during the summer, and there were always fun things to do. Whether walking through the Versailles Gardens or spending hours in Louvre, I was able to immerse myself in the French culture. One of my favorite days was when I rollerbladed with my friend Jane and thousands of other Parisians on a 12 mile course through Paris.

My summer was a truly incredibly experience. I was able to follow my passion of research to a wonderful, foreign city. How else would anyone want to spend their summer?

Learn more about the Vredenburg Scholarship.

Shaun McGovern, a senior in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, researches the viscoelastic properties of pancreatic cancer in the Wirtz Lab.

Seizing serendipity during a European internship

Studying abroad is a popular experience for undergraduates and many students try to take advantage of this opportunity. Being an international student at heart, I was also interested in exploring the world; however, my coursework made it practically impossible to go abroad with the study programs that my college offered. I did not just want to go traveling though, I wanted to invest my time while creating new experiences for myself, and so it occurred to me to independently seek an international research internship abroad. I started searching for the opportunities and with some luck involved I discovered the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL). The institute actually consists of a large number of member states in Europe including Germany, France, UK, and even, somehow, Australia.

We were completely soaked, but we had to get back. Much to our surprise we got a ride back up to the castle.

We were completely soaked, but we had to get back. Much to our surprise we got a ride back up to the castle.

After a series of e-mails and a phone interview I ended up joining the group of Dr. Christian Haering whose lab is studying the condensin protein complex in yeast. Condensin protein complex does pretty much what you would expect; it condenses and organizes chromosomes together but also has other roles, like regulating gene expression. The project seemed exciting to me, and it also meant that I would be able to spend my summer in Heidelberg, Germany, while learning something new. One of my best college friends also applied to the institute and ended up being accepted to a different lab.

The campus was located in a serene location on top of the hill, which required a healthy hike through the forest in the morning. A lot of things about this place were special: there was a building with two floors spiraling upwards in a double helix, a cafeteria chef with a mustache in a style of a Prussian soldier singing and greeting with “Bonjour!” beer Fridays organized by different labs, journal clubs and coffee breaks with a beautiful spectrum of accents discussing science.

In my research, I worked with fission yeast and tried to isolate condensin and other proteins that might interact with it on some level. I learned new techniques of growing yeast, isolating protein with magnetic nanobeads, and performing Western blots to mention a few. Although I did end up working very long hours during the week, Friday nights meant one thing: my friend and I were literally running to catch a train. We would come to work with packed backpacks and a vague idea of where we wanted to go. Very often we were in the hands of serendipity, which provided opportunities that would be difficult to plan out.

IMG_3695_stitch cc sat60 us. Hohenzollern in thunderstormTo give an overview of one weekend, we were able to visit Frankfurt, Cologne, Bonn, and a tiny city St. Goar on the Rhine River. Almost nearly missing a series of trains but always making it with half-a-minute to spare, we finally missed the connecting train in Frankfurt by 20 seconds and got stuck there. As a result, we arrived in Cologne at 6 a.m., with a stunning view of Cologne’s gothic cathedral filling most of the huge window of the train station. By midday we moved on to Bonn because it was a birthplace of Beethoven. If you ask me how we ended up in the tiny city of St. Goar, I do not know. In St. Goar, by chance we learned that they had closed the road along the Rhine to give bicycles free reign, and so we rented bikes to participate in the procession with other bicyclists. On the way, we climbed up to three castles overlooking the Rhine, and arrived back to our town late at night to get some sleep before work. In a similar manner, we traveled to Switzerland, France, Belgium, the Netherlands and various cities in Germany.

The experience in Europe was rich with emotions and stories: from the Foreigner performance in Mannheim to the Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” in St. Chapelle in Paris, from sleeping at the train station to being soaked under rain in the attempt to climb a mountain with a castle on top.

I advise undergraduates to actively seek such research and travel opportunities because very few things make you feel so alive like learning and traveling.

Alex Komin, a first-year PhD student in Kalina Hristova’s lab in Materials Science and Engineering Department, is working on new methods to deliver drugs to the brain.

Gaining perspective from an international research internship

I was fortunate enough to able to complete an internship abroad during my undergraduate career. Though I was extremely excited to begin work at a German university in Berlin, I was also very apprehensive about the huge transition I would have to make. Not only was I living in a new country speaking a relatively uncomfortable language, but it was also my first laboratory experience in the side of materials science, which so often overlaps with chemistry. Through my time in Berlin, I learned about German culture, conducting science abroad, and I got a healthy dose of chemistry.

Luisa Russell during her internship.

Luisa Russell during her internship.

My lab work in Germany involved the synthesis and functionalization of gold nanospheres and nanorods for the ultimate goal of the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis using hyperbranched polyglycerol. Though I worked under an older graduate student and had to start essentially from the beginning due to my relative lack of chemistry lab training, my fellow interns and I were given many opportunities to expand on our laboratory skills, and I came to be independent in both synthesis and in data collection and analysis for a variety of nanoparticles. Though we mainly worked with gold, we also explored more nontraditional nanomaterials including graphene and nanodiamonds through work my mentor was doing in collaboration with other groups, giving me a broad experience in nanotechnology.

In addition, doing my internship abroad rather than at another university in the United States gave me a new perspective on science as an international endeavor. Though lab books, conversation, and notes were in German, everything with a larger audience was conducted in English, from guest lecturers to group meeting presentations to papers written for publication in journals. While this made me a little more comfortable given my barely conversational German, it also struck me how my peers were obligated to be conversant in English to be part of the international science community, as well as a contributing part of their own local groups. This helped me understand the unique challenges faced by international scientists, and I look forward to continuing work with international collaborators in the future.

My internship, though it started out slow, ended up being an invaluable experience for my current work. It was a great way to get an in depth and low commitment experience with an aspect of lab work in materials science that I hadn’t previously been familiar with, and inspired me to continue working in this field. My work in the Searson Group centers around nanoparticle synthesis as applied to quantum dots, and my experience both as a member of a chemistry lab and as a semi-independent synthesizer of nanoparticles gave me an advantage in learning to navigate my way around the lab and the relatively difficult protocols applied in the synthesis of quantum dots. While it did break up the span of time over which I could do longer term research, ultimately the opportunity to explore a variety of aspects of materials science in a hands-on way was extremely valuable, and helped to inform my future research interests.

Luisa Russell is a second-year PhD candidate in the materials science department working on hybrid multifunctional nanoparticles in Peter Searson’s research group.